New data from the Death Penalty Information Center shows the number of death sentences handed down in 2012 is the lowest in two decades, indicating a decline in prosecutors’ support for the measure. Though 33 states have the death penalty, just four states were responsible for three-fourths of the executions carried out this year: Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.
Five states have banned capital punishment in the last five years, and four states with the death penalty did not sentence anyone to death this year. Though Texas carried out the most executions in 2012 — 15 — it issued fewer death sentences for the eighth consecutive year, which suggests less executions will take place in the future.
According to the Center’s director, Richard C. Dieter, the most important reason for the falling rate “is lingering doubt about guilt.” Though there are no solid statistics on the number of innocent people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in the late 1970s, there are instances in which inmates’ guilt was in serious question. Since 1989 more than 200 inmates have been exonerated through DNA evidence.
Another major factor is cost effectiveness. Putting convicted criminals to death is extremely expensive. For example, since 1978 California has executed just 13 people, but spent $4 billion to do it. Colorado has spent $18 million on one case since 1994.
However, though support for the controversial measure appears to be in decline both in the general public and prosecutors’ offices, the U.S. remains the only G7 country to execute its citizens. The United States — together with China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen — carried out the most executions in 2011.